(Updated at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 17, with news conference)
Margie Vandeven may be Missouri’s new commissioner for elementary and secondary education, but she’ll enter the job at the first of the year concentrating on some old problems.
One of them, she told reporters in a conference call Wednesday after her unanimous selection by the state board of education, is working for changes in Missouri’s student transfer law, to help protect the budgets of districts whose students are eligible to leave.
Because of the financial drain from payments for tuition and transportation, Vandeven said, those districts suffer financially, which in turn hurts students who stay. Earlier this year, the state took over Normandy’s finances and dissolved the district in favor of the Normandy Schools Collaborative. Riverview Gardens faces the possibility of similar financial problems.
A bill designed to alleviate the problems was vetoed earlier this year by Gov. Jay Nixon for several reasons, so the old transfer law remains in place. Lawmakers have filed bills to fix the problem of tuition payments for the session that begins next month, and Vandeven said changes are a top priority to help improve struggling school districts.
““One of the first things that we need to address is a tuition fix,” she said. “Normandy is 80 students away from potential fiscal insolvency. And while all children deserve access to a high quality education, there are ways to make that happen without bankrupting the whole school district.”
The issue, Vandeven added, is helping to make sure that students don’t have to leave their home district to attend good schools.
“We did many meetings with the Normandy families,” she said, “and one thing they spoke loudly and clearly about was that they needed and wanted quality schools in their own neighborhoods and in their own communities. So we really need to be able to attract the best leaders and the best teachers for those schools, and with the question of fiscal insolvency, that’s a challenge to do so.”
Of the five final candidates to succeed Chris Nicastro, who is retiring at the end of December after five and a half years on the job, Vandeven, 46, was the only one who has not served as a superintendent.
A native of O’Fallon, Mo., she joined the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education nine years ago, after experience as an English teacher and administrator in private schools in Missouri and Maryland, and worked her way up to deputy commissioner in charge of learning services.
Top 10 by 2020
Peter Herschend of Branson, president of the state school board, told reporters on the conference call that Vandeven has a clear grasp of and focus on the goals that the board has set for Missouri schools, including being in the top 10 nationally by the year 2020.
“She was a good choice in a good field of candidates,” Herschend said. “She has an absolute dedicated passion for the kids in this state to be successful.
“That’s the heart of what we must do on a continuing basis to get every child graduating from high school college- or career-ready. She is probably the best expert in the state on the administration of those goals, formulation of them, and then seeing to it that they’re going to happen.”
Asked about how her experience as a classroom teacher would help shape her approach as commissioner, Vandeven said:
“I take the advice as commissioner that I received as a classroom teacher, and that was to know your students and your content well. Over the last nine years at the department, I believe that I’ve gained a great understanding of the diversity of our state and the people that we serve, and I’m committed to working collaboratively with them in the building of relationships.”
Vandeven said she plans to meet with superintendents in every region of the state, stating that they are critical to the success of Missouri schools. Asked whether DESE has the resources it needs to give struggling districts the support they need, she said it does not have them at this point, but the department has submitted a new budget request for such work.
Asked about taking over the department at this time, with a lot of critical issues in play, such as Common Core state standards, Vandeven said:
“I’ve given this quite a bit of thought, and I am absolutely thrilled and honored to be moving forward in this position. We have a great team in place in the department, and I believe when you really get down to it, that the people in Missouri want a lot of the same things, we just have to be able to find that common ground and move forward.”
Some of that common ground, she said, will have to be found with lawmakers who often criticized Nicastro’s running of the department.
“One of the critical responsibilities of any leader is to ensure that you can generate trust,” Vandeven said. “That is one area that I will work diligently on, gaining the trust of not just the legislators but the people of Missouri. That will be a primary focus.”
She also noted that she would like to see the department become more diverse, to more closely mirror the districts it is becoming closely involved with. “Whatever you all can do to help us with that,” Vandeven said, “we would really appreciate that. It’s a challenge, as you know. Geography makes that a challenge. But we would certainly appreciate any advice on that.”
Lack of diversity
That lack of diversity was raised as an issue when the five final candidates were named and all were white, as is most of the top leadership in DESE. Because most of the districts that the department has dealt with in recent years have had a heavy minority population, the disconnect was seen by some as a sign that Jefferson City was out of touch with districts that needed help the most.
Mike Jones of St. Louis, an African American who is vice president of the state board, said that the problem is a chronic one that is not likely to go away soon.
“As long as the state capital is in Jefferson City,” he said in an interview “and the state pays what it pays, attracting top-flight minority talent is always going to be a problem for Missouri.”
When Herschend had indicated that he wanted a brief process to find Nicastro’s successor, several education groups protested that such a plan would not necessarily have the scope that such a search should have. He agreed to lengthen the timeline; ultimately, the board reviewed a dozen applications before narrowing the field to the five finalists who were interviewed on Tuesday in Jefferson City.
Their selection was praised by many educators and others in the state after Vandeven’s name was made public Wednesday.
In a statement issued by his office, Gov. Jay Nixon congratulated Vandeven for her appointment.
"Missouri’s Commissioner of Education plays a critical role in helping to ensure that all children in our state have the opportunity to go to a good public school where they will learn the skills and knowledge they need to find success in college or career," Nixon said.
"I look forward to working with Dr. Vandeven, educators and school leaders, and the Missouri General Assembly as we move forward toward our shared goal of continuing to improve the quality of education for students in every community.”
Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said in an email:
"I believe the State Board of Education made a good choice. Dr. Vandeven's work with education policy has been excellent. I believe she truly supports the importance of every child in the State of Missouri receiving a quality education. I have appreciated her work ensuring the charter public schools in our State, while being held accountable, maintain the autonomy to truly meet the educational needs of their students and families have a choice in the public school they believe is best for their children."
Don Senti, who heads EducationPlus, a consortium of area school districts, said in an email:
"I am pleased that the State Board decided to do a search. That places Margie in a stronger position than I would if she has just been appointed without a search. Given the fact that Margie’s competition was four experienced, highly respected superintendents, I am surprised at the selection.
"I must therefore assume that the Board is satisfied with DESE’s current initiatives and the progress toward their 10 by 20 goal and that Margie would be the best person to continue that work. I hope that Margie will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the current reality in our State to determine if we are, in fact, on the right path.
"EdPlus represents one third of all the school children in the State. We will do everything we can to collaborate with our new Commissioner."
Carter Ward, who heads the Missouri School Boards Association, said:
“The State Board of Education has made an excellent decision in appointing Dr. Vandeven as commissioner. She has the knowledge and skills necessary to provide outstanding leadership for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and for public education in Missouri.”
And Mark Jones of the Missouri National Education Association, who had been critical of the lack of diversity in the search process for a new commissioner and in the top administration at DESE, said in an interview:
"We’re happy that the process was extended to give them more time for a more thorough search. I don’t think anyone is surprised at the selection of Margie. We’ll be happy to work with her and any member of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to help move the interests of Missouri students forward."
A spokesman for Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, said Adams congratulates Vandeven on her appointment and looks forward to working with her.
Besides Vandeven, the other final candidate for the commissioner job were Terry Adams, former superintendent in Wentzville and Rockwood; Norman Ridder, interim superintendent of Mehlville and former superintendent in Springfield; Charles Huff, superintendent in Joplin; and Douglas Hayter, superintendent in Branson.